'Angry aunties' spark debate on Bangkok's informal markets

The "angry aunties" shot to fame when they went at a pickup truck parked outside their home with an axe and a metal rod, saying they were fed up of having their lives disrupted by illegal markets. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM FACEBOOK/DEBBIE SAENGYOKTRAKARN

BANGKOK (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A Bangkok court this week ordered the closure of five informal markets in a housing estate, and compensation for four women who live next door, bringing an end to the "angry aunties" saga that gripped the city for months.

Bangkok's governor vowed to clamp down on such markets, which civic groups defend as integral to the city's economy and colourful character.

The promised crackdown is part of a wider effort to modernise Thailand's capital, with authorities also clearing sidewalks of vendors, and removing homes and shanties along the Chao Phraya river to build a promenade.

Civic groups say these evictions mostly target poor residents who have little legal recourse, as they have no formal rights to their homes and businesses.

"They contribute to making Bangkok liveable and affordable,"said Sasiwimon Warunsiri, an assistant professor of economics at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

"But they themselves have little social, economic or legal security," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two of the four "aunties" shot to fame when they went at a pickup truck parked outside their home with an axe and a metal rod, saying they were fed up of having their lives disrupted by the illegal markets they had complained about for years.

The tirade in February was filmed by onlookers and posted online, where it quickly went viral, drawing sympathy for the women - who were dubbed "angry aunties" - and the traders alike, in a heated debate about informal markets.

The court on Wednesday ordered municipal authorities to pay about 400,000 baht (S$16,710) as compensation to each of the plaintiffs.

"We agree the markets must be demolished, but I will consult with my legal team on the compensation," Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang told reporters following the order.

More than half the approximately 1,000 markets in Bangkok are illegal, and authorities "will get tough" with them, ordering them to shut down or get a licence, he said.

Under the military government since 2014, Bangkok has sought a "dramatic reduction" in the number of vendors in public spaces, according to HomeNet Thailand, an organisation of informal workers.

Authorities say they are removing encroachers to make public spaces and riverfront areas accessible to more people.

They are not alone: with Asian cities striving to become more international and lure investment, street vendors are viewed as a hindrance, and as usurpers of public spaces claimed by formal businesses, residents and pedestrians.

Most vendors in Bangkok are unauthorised, right groups estimate. Many are migrants from rural areas who moved in search of better economic opportunities.

"Authorities have tended to allow informal markets to operate because they are popular with residents, but we may see a stricter clamp-down if more people complain," Sasiwimon said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.